Themes

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In his essay "On a Book Entitled Lolita," Nabokov traced the first inspiration for the novel to a newspaper story about an ape "who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage." As many critics have remarked, Lolita is not about sex but about love. Even more, it is about obsession — and the destructive power it can hold over the lives of its victims.

Humbert Humbert, the novel's narrator and protagonist, is, in addition to his passion for preadolescent girls, a consummate solipsist. He is incapable of seeing any of the other characters as human beings; he perceives Lolita as merely an extension of his own obsessions and fantasies. He does not understand that, in spite of some rudimentary sexual experience, her conceptions of sex, love, and life are very much those of a child raised on sundaes and movie magazines. It is only after he has lost Lolita — after he realizes that he has destroyed her — that Humbert can see her as a being separate from himself, and thus realize that he truly loves her. Thus, the novel which was condemned for its "immorality" and its "corrupting influence" actually contains one of Nabokov's most poignant moral messages.

A major theme in nearly all of Nabokov's works is memory, the attempt to capture, even create, the past. Thus, the novel is in the form of Humbert's reminiscences, written in prison as he awaits his trial for the murder of Clare Quilty, his "partner" in the corruption of Lolita. Through reconstruction of his life in the memoir which is the novel, Humbert comes to understand, and thus at least partially to atone for, his sins. Moreover, because in the process he creates a work of literature, he secures for himself and for Lolita the immortality of art.

Themes

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Art and Experience
When Humbert calls himself an artist, he reveals his attempt to impose some kind of meaningful order on his baser instincts. In his record of his life with Lolita, he tries to create a work of art that will grant immortality for the two of them by foregrounding his aesthetic sense of Lolita's beauty, and at the same time, by obscuring his morally corrupt crimes against her. Yet, he is often unable to accomplish this, as evidenced when he imagines himself as a painter, expressing the poignancy and heartbreak that defines his relationship with Lolita. He suggests his murals would recreate

a lake. There would have been an arbor in flame-flower.... There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as it were, by his molding caress), helping a callypygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of jukeboxes. There would have been all kinds of camp activities on the part of the intermediate group, Canoeing, Coranting, Combing Curls in the lakeside sun. There would have been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.

At other times, he turns to art to help ease his burden of guilt: "Unless it can be proven to me ... that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a north American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is...

(This entire section contains 683 words.)

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a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art."

Appearances and Reality
Humbert's struggle to create art relates to another important theme—appearance versus reality—when he tries to present an idealistic portrait of Lolita and his relationship with her. He continually insists on the innocence of Lolita, which is crucial to his vision of and therefore his desire for her. He insists that "under no circumstances would [he] have interfered with the innocence of a child." She, however, was never quite the innocent he envisions. While at camp, she engaged in sexual activities and thus felt confident enough to seduce Humbert during their first night together. Later, in response to his control of her, she turns into a "cruel manipulator" who demands cash for sexual favors. At the same time, she was more vulnerable than Humbert is willing to admit, and he took advantage of that vulnerability, as when he comforted her after she learned her mother was dead. He offers a symbolic assessment of his destruction of her innocence when he admits that "our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep."

Victim and Victimization
Humbert becomes both victim and victimizer in his relationship with Lolita. He admits that he forced a "singular and bestial cohabitation" on her and "that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif." Yet he was also victimized by his uncontrollable obsession with her, which he eloquently chronicles.

Anger and Hatred
Humbert's self-loathing prompts him to create a double who can absolve him of guilt. Clare Quilty becomes the manifestation of his illicit desire for Lolita. When he kills Quilty in a fit of revenge, he tries to erase the pain and suffering he caused her. Previously, his remorse over his obsession with young girls caused several breakdowns and subsequent hospitalizations. Yet, the absurd encounter with Quilty at the end of the novel suggests that Humbert recognizes his responsibility for his and Lolita's tragic relationship.

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